TEDGlobal 2013

Bernie Krause: The voice of the natural world

Filmed:

Bernie Krause has been recording wild soundscapes -- the wind in the trees, the chirping of birds, the subtle sounds of insect larvae -- for 45 years. In that time, he has seen many environments radically altered by humans, sometimes even by practices thought to be environmentally safe. A surprising look at what we can learn through nature's symphonies, from the grunting of a sea anemone to the sad calls of a beaver in mourning.

- Natural sounds expert
Bernie Krause's legendary soundscapes uncover nature’s rich sonic tapestry -- along with some unexpected results. Full bio

(Nature sounds)
00:14
When I first began recording wild soundscapes
00:19
45 years ago,
00:22
I had no idea that ants,
00:24
insect larvae, sea anemones and viruses
00:26
created a sound signature.
00:30
But they do.
00:32
And so does every wild habitat on the planet,
00:33
like the Amazon rainforest you're hearing behind me.
00:37
In fact, temperate and tropical rainforests
00:40
each produce a vibrant animal orchestra,
00:43
that instantaneous and organized expression
00:47
of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.
00:50
And every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat
00:55
generates its own unique signature,
00:58
one that contains incredible amounts of information,
01:01
and it's some of that information I want to share with you today.
01:04
The soundscape is made up of three basic sources.
01:08
The first is the geophony,
01:12
or the nonbiological sounds that occur
01:14
in any given habitat,
01:17
like wind in the trees, water in a stream,
01:19
waves at the ocean shore, movement of the Earth.
01:21
The second of these is the biophony.
01:25
The biophony is all of the sound
01:28
that's generated by organisms in a given habitat
01:31
at one time and in one place.
01:34
And the third is all of the sound that we humans generate
01:38
that's called anthrophony.
01:42
Some of it is controlled, like music or theater,
01:44
but most of it is chaotic and incoherent,
01:48
which some of us refer to as noise.
01:52
There was a time when I considered wild soundscapes
01:55
to be a worthless artifact.
01:58
They were just there, but they had no significance.
02:00
Well, I was wrong. What I learned from these encounters
02:04
was that careful listening gives us incredibly valuable tools
02:07
by which to evaluate the health of a habitat
02:12
across the entire spectrum of life.
02:14
When I began recording in the late '60s,
02:18
the typical methods of recording were limited
02:22
to the fragmented capture of individual species
02:25
like birds mostly, in the beginning,
02:29
but later animals like mammals and amphibians.
02:32
To me, this was a little like trying to understand
02:38
the magnificence of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
02:42
by abstracting the sound of a single violin player
02:45
out of the context of the orchestra
02:48
and hearing just that one part.
02:50
Fortunately, more and more institutions
02:53
are implementing the more holistic models
02:56
that I and a few of my colleagues have introduced
02:58
to the field of soundscape ecology.
03:01
When I began recording over four decades ago,
03:05
I could record for 10 hours
03:10
and capture one hour of usable material,
03:12
good enough for an album or a film soundtrack
03:14
or a museum installation.
03:17
Now, because of global warming,
03:20
resource extraction,
03:23
and human noise, among many other factors,
03:24
it can take up to 1,000 hours or more
03:27
to capture the same thing.
03:30
Fully 50 percent of my archive
03:33
comes from habitats so radically altered
03:36
that they're either altogether silent
03:39
or can no longer be heard in any of their original form.
03:42
The usual methods of evaluating a habitat
03:47
have been done by visually counting the numbers of species
03:49
and the numbers of individuals within each species in a given area.
03:52
However, by comparing data that ties together
03:57
both density and diversity from what we hear,
04:00
I'm able to arrive at much more precise fitness outcomes.
04:03
And I want to show you some examples
04:08
that typify the possibilities unlocked
04:10
by diving into this universe.
04:13
This is Lincoln Meadow.
04:16
Lincoln Meadow's a three-and-a-half-hour drive
04:18
east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada Mountains,
04:20
at about 2,000 meters altitude,
04:23
and I've been recording there for many years.
04:25
In 1988, a logging company convinced local residents
04:28
that there would be absolutely no environmental impact
04:32
from a new method they were trying
04:35
called "selective logging,"
04:36
taking out a tree here and there
04:38
rather than clear-cutting a whole area.
04:40
With permission granted to record
04:43
both before and after the operation,
04:45
I set up my gear and captured a large number of dawn choruses
04:47
to very strict protocol and calibrated recordings,
04:51
because I wanted a really good baseline.
04:55
This is an example of a spectrogram.
04:57
A spectrogram is a graphic illustration of sound
04:59
with time from left to right across the page --
05:02
15 seconds in this case is represented —
05:05
and frequency from the bottom of the page to the top,
05:07
lowest to highest.
05:10
And you can see that the signature of a stream
05:11
is represented here in the bottom third or half of the page,
05:14
while birds that were once in that meadow
05:19
are represented in the signature across the top.
05:23
There were a lot of them.
05:26
And here's Lincoln Meadow before selective logging.
05:27
(Nature sounds)
05:30
Well, a year later I returned,
05:45
and using the same protocols
05:47
and recording under the same conditions,
05:49
I recorded a number of examples
05:51
of the same dawn choruses,
05:53
and now this is what we've got.
05:56
This is after selective logging.
05:58
You can see that the stream is still represented
05:59
in the bottom third of the page,
06:01
but notice what's missing in the top two thirds.
06:03
(Nature sounds)
06:07
Coming up is the sound of a woodpecker.
06:13
Well, I've returned to Lincoln Meadow 15 times
06:22
in the last 25 years,
06:25
and I can tell you that the biophony,
06:27
the density and diversity of that biophony,
06:30
has not yet returned to anything like it was
06:33
before the operation.
06:36
But here's a picture of Lincoln Meadow taken after,
06:38
and you can see that from the perspective of the camera
06:41
or the human eye,
06:44
hardly a stick or a tree appears to be out of place,
06:45
which would confirm the logging company's contention
06:48
that there's nothing of environmental impact.
06:51
However, our ears tell us a very different story.
06:54
Young students are always asking me
07:00
what these animals are saying,
07:02
and really I've got no idea.
07:03
But I can tell you that they do express themselves.
07:08
Whether or not we understand it is a different story.
07:14
I was walking along the shore in Alaska,
07:17
and I came across this tide pool
07:19
filled with a colony of sea anemones,
07:21
these wonderful eating machines,
07:24
relatives of coral and jellyfish.
07:26
And curious to see if any of them made any noise,
07:29
I dropped a hydrophone,
07:31
an underwater microphone covered in rubber,
07:33
down the mouth part,
07:36
and immediately the critter began
07:37
to absorb the microphone into its belly,
07:39
and the tentacles were searching out of the surface
07:41
for something of nutritional value.
07:44
The static-like sounds that are very low,
07:46
that you're going to hear right now.
07:48
(Static sounds)
07:51
Yeah, but watch. When it didn't find anything to eat --
07:55
(Honking sound)
07:58
(Laughter)
07:59
I think that's an expression that can be understood
08:02
in any language.
08:04
(Laughter)
08:06
At the end of its breeding cycle,
08:11
the Great Basin Spadefoot toad
08:12
digs itself down about a meter under
08:14
the hard-panned desert soil of the American West,
08:16
where it can stay for many seasons
08:20
until conditions are just right for it to emerge again.
08:21
And when there's enough moisture in the soil
08:25
in the spring, frogs will dig themselves to the surface
08:27
and gather around these large, vernal pools
08:29
in great numbers.
08:34
And they vocalize in a chorus
08:36
that's absolutely in sync with one another.
08:39
And they do that for two reasons.
08:43
The first is competitive, because they're looking for mates,
08:44
and the second is cooperative,
08:48
because if they're all vocalizing in sync together,
08:49
it makes it really difficult for predators like coyotes,
08:51
foxes and owls to single out any individual for a meal.
08:56
This is a spectrogram of what the frog chorusing looks like
09:00
when it's in a very healthy pattern.
09:03
(Frogs croaking)
09:05
Mono Lake is just to the east of Yosemite National Park
09:15
in California,
09:19
and it's a favorite habitat of these toads,
09:21
and it's also favored by U.S. Navy jet pilots,
09:24
who train in their fighters flying them at speeds
09:27
exceeding 1,100 kilometers an hour
09:30
and altitudes only a couple hundred meters
09:33
above ground level of the Mono Basin,
09:35
very fast, very low, and so loud
09:38
that the anthrophony, the human noise,
09:42
even though it's six and a half kilometers
09:44
from the frog pond you just heard a second ago,
09:46
it masked the sound of the chorusing toads.
09:49
You can see in this spectrogram that all of the energy
09:53
that was once in the first spectrogram is gone
09:56
from the top end of the spectrogram,
09:59
and that there's breaks in the chorusing at two and a half,
10:01
four and a half, and six and a half seconds,
10:03
and then the sound of the jet, the signature,
10:06
is in yellow at the very bottom of the page.
10:09
(Frogs croaking)
10:11
Now at the end of that flyby,
10:21
it took the frogs fully 45 minutes
10:23
to regain their chorusing synchronicity,
10:27
during which time, and under a full moon,
10:29
we watched as two coyotes and a great horned owl
10:32
came in to pick off a few of their numbers.
10:35
The good news is that, with a little bit of habitat restoration
10:38
and fewer flights, the frog populations,
10:42
once diminishing during the 1980s and early '90s,
10:44
have pretty much returned to normal.
10:48
I want to end with a story told by a beaver.
10:52
It's a very sad story,
10:54
but it really illustrates how animals
10:56
can sometimes show emotion,
11:00
a very controversial subject among some older biologists.
11:02
A colleague of mine was recording in the American Midwest
11:06
around this pond that had been formed
11:10
maybe 16,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.
11:12
It was also formed in part by a beaver dam
11:16
at one end that held that whole ecosystem together
11:18
in a very delicate balance.
11:21
And one afternoon, while he was recording,
11:24
there suddenly appeared from out of nowhere
11:28
a couple of game wardens,
11:32
who for no apparent reason,
11:34
walked over to the beaver dam,
11:36
dropped a stick of dynamite down it, blowing it up,
11:37
killing the female and her young babies.
11:40
Horrified, my colleagues remained behind
11:44
to gather his thoughts
11:47
and to record whatever he could the rest of the afternoon,
11:49
and that evening, he captured a remarkable event:
11:53
the lone surviving male beaver swimming in slow circles
11:58
crying out inconsolably for its lost mate and offspring.
12:02
This is probably the saddest sound
12:08
I've ever heard coming from any organism,
12:11
human or other.
12:13
(Beaver crying)
12:18
Yeah. Well.
12:34
There are many facets to soundscapes,
12:35
among them the ways in which animals taught us to dance and sing,
12:38
which I'll save for another time.
12:41
But you have heard how biophonies
12:44
help clarify our understanding of the natural world.
12:47
You've heard the impact of resource extraction,
12:51
human noise and habitat destruction.
12:53
And where environmental sciences have typically
12:56
tried to understand the world from what we see,
12:58
a much fuller understanding can be got from what we hear.
13:01
Biophonies and geophonies are the signature voices
13:06
of the natural world,
13:10
and as we hear them,
13:12
we're endowed with a sense of place,
13:13
the true story of the world we live in.
13:16
In a matter of seconds,
13:19
a soundscape reveals much more information
13:21
from many perspectives,
13:24
from quantifiable data to cultural inspiration.
13:25
Visual capture implicitly frames
13:30
a limited frontal perspective of a given spatial context,
13:33
while soundscapes widen that scope
13:37
to a full 360 degrees, completely enveloping us.
13:39
And while a picture may be worth 1,000 words,
13:44
a soundscape is worth 1,000 pictures.
13:48
And our ears tell us
13:53
that the whisper of every leaf and creature
13:55
speaks to the natural sources of our lives,
13:58
which indeed may hold the secrets of love for all things,
14:01
especially our own humanity,
14:06
and the last word goes to a jaguar from the Amazon.
14:08
(Growling)
14:15
Thank you for listening.
14:28
(Applause)
14:31

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About the Speaker:

Bernie Krause - Natural sounds expert
Bernie Krause's legendary soundscapes uncover nature’s rich sonic tapestry -- along with some unexpected results.

Why you should listen

With a stellar electronic music resumé including work with The Byrds, Stevie Wonder and many others, Bernie Krause is assured a place in the pop culture canon. But Krause continues to make history by capturing the fading voices of nature: studying sonic interplay between species as they attract mates, hunt prey, and sound out their roles in the ecosystem.

Krause’s recordings are not merely travelogues or relaxation tools -- they are critical barometers of global environmental health. His documents of vanishing aural habitats are a chilling reminder of shrinking biodiversity. As he tells the Guardian: "The fragile weave of natural sound is being torn apart by our seemingly boundless need to conquer the environment rather than to find a way to abide in consonance with it."